Arriving in the belle époque seaside town of San Sebastián, a visitor might think he has fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in some fantastical Planet of the Epicures—an alternate universe where bar counters groan beneath platters of crab tartlets and foie gras canapés, where the culinary haute couture mingles with homegrown tastes from a different century, where three generations of blazingly creative chefs exchange ideas as if they were villagers borrowing cups of sugar from one another. Gastronomy is to this part of the world what love is to France and soccer to Brazil: a subject permeating every nook and cranny of the collective unconscious.
A people without a country, the Basques live in bordering regions of northern Spain and southern France, in a landscape of pastoral hills and wide beaches hugging the Bay of Biscay. The Basques are proud of their inscrutable tongue, which has no known linguistic relatives, and proud of the theories that declare them Europe's most ancient ethnic group. They are certainly not proud of the violent separatist acts of ETA, a fringe organization that is seen as an embarrassment by many Basque citizens and whose terrorist acts are directed mainly outside the region.
A minority population of about three million people who have struggled for centuries to preserve their identity, the Basques cultivate a relentless sense of uniqueness—secrecy, even—clinging to their cultural pastimes, passions, and artifacts. Along with the floppy beret called a txapela and the game of jai alai, being nuts about food is one of the defining characteristics of Basqueness. It is as if through all their hardships—the Franco-led suppression of the language and culture, the poverty that once drove many Spanish Basques to leave for the Americas—they were united by their great love for bacalao al pil-pil (salt cod in a garlic emulsion) and by their never-ending arguments over who creates the best merluza en salsa verde (hake in green sauce).
Basque cuisine is dense with tradition, wedded to both land and sea. The Biscayan waters yield pristine langoustines, tender-fleshed hake, anchovies, and the sweetest, tiniest chipirones, or baby squid. From the misty slopes come farmhouse cheeses such as Idiazabal, iridescent-green peas, and a profusion of mushrooms. While etxekoandreak (those feisty Basque matriarchs) stuff their shopping baskets with suckling lamb chops and angulas (baby eels that fetch up to $450 per pound), their husbands hang out at gastronomic societies, the local men-only cooking clubs, whose members take turns preparing extravagant feasts.
The Spanish Basques' claim of possessing the world's greatest food is more than just chauvinism. A hotbed of progressive cuisine in a country famous for its culinary vanguard, the area around San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque)—a 20-mile radius encompassing seaside villages and country hamlets—has eight Michelin-starred restaurants for the city's 183,000 food-crazy inhabitants. Not to be outdone, Bilbao and its Vizcaya province (about an hour's drive from San Sebastián) are playing catch-up, with the Rioja-producing Basque Alava region supplying the wine. (One eats well, too, in the French Basque Country, among its dreamy white chalets trimmed in red. Still, even French snobs admit that for gastronomic adventure they zip across the border to Spain.) Drawn to its restaurants as fashionistas are to the runways of Milan and Paris, I've been coming to the Basque Country now for a decade to check up on emerging talents and to revisit old haunts. On a recent trip, just as Basque chefs were reinventing their menus to include spring's fresh anchovies and baby vegetables, I gathered up the best of the lot. Think of it as a tasting menu of places that define the Basque dining experience.
If I had time for only one serious meal in the region, it would be at Restaurante Arzak, a bastion of Basque alta cocina that started life more than a century ago as a roadside taberna. In the late seventies a group of Basque chefs set out to modernize the sturdy bourgeois cooking. Finding inspiration in the nouvelle cuisine across the border in France, they came up with nueva cocina vasca, an inventive, light style, radically original in its form but solidly Basque in substance (traditional ingredients reconfigured into new dishes, forgotten recipes reimagined without flour or cream). In just a few years the movement swept across Spain and became the nation's default haute cuisine, paving the way for the Ferran Adrià-led revolution that followed. Everyone from this group went on to fame: Pedro Subijana, the chef at Michelin two-star Akelarre, and Karlos Arguiñano, Spain's Emeril Lagasse. But the name Juan Mari Arzak—the man who gave the country one of its earliest Michelin three-star restaurants in 1989—is mythical.
Arzak, 62, is larger than life, quick to laugh, with the high energy and common touch of a great politician. Though he hobnobs with royalty and celebrities (Crown Prince Felipe and his wife are fans), he insists that his most important clients and critics are the local farmers and fishermen who save up for a Sunday lunch here. Can a visionary Michelin three-star restaurant be populist? Arzak is. Young couples wearing T-shirts mingle with Armani'ed bankers in the cozy dining room attended by matronly waitresses. The food is as experimental as any in Spain—Arzak's co-chef is his forward-thinking 35-year-old daughter, Elena—yet it delivers the sort of naked, visceral pleasure one associates with small back-road bistros.
One of the signature dishes, pumpkin-and-squid ravioli, arrives hidden beneath a murky black gelée that dissolves under a stream of warm broth poured tableside to reveal the Day-Glo-orange discs below. The visual stunt is riveting, but what lingers is the sweet, earthy intensity of pumpkin-and-squid broth. Another conceptual joke is a lamb chop veiled in tissue—a layer of café con leche, which has been baked between two Silpat pan liners—that gradually melts into the pan juices. Along with the punch line, I savor this planet's loveliest, rosiest piece of meat. Oysters and potato confit in a gauzy, crinkly rice cellophane, blood sausage and apples trapped between slices of an extravagantly colorful tropical fruit called pitahaya—both have the same delicious dichotomy: soulful Basque food in futuristic gift wrap.
The New Generation
With the foundation laid by Arzak and company, new Basque cuisine has progressed by leaps and bounds. The star of its second generation, Martin Berasategui, is the latest Spaniard to snag the coveted third Michelin macaroon at his namesake restaurant. When he's not busy tossing off virtuoso tasting menus of breathtakingly complicated dishes, the fortyish Berasategui mentors young chefs with whom he shares a restaurant empire. Among his protégés are two genuine wunderkinds: Josean Martínez Alija, manning the stoves at the Guggenheim Museum restaurant in Bilbao, and Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef at Mugaritz, near San Sebastián.
Alija, 26, looks like a teenager but cooks in a way so refined and mature that it's startling to think where he might end up. Meticulously orchestrated, my tasting menu unfolds like an intimate chamber piece, full of whisper-light textures and delicate gestures: a stark white bowl of silken Parmesan-infused cream with truffle jus and an unexpected grace note of shiso leaves; lamb vacuum-cooked at a low temperature to spectacular softness and served in a sherry broth laced with minuscule slivers of candied lemon. Alija's purist, introspective cuisine stands in curious contrast with Frank Gehry's architectural barn burner. In the gray Bilbao light, El Guggenheim resembles a high-tech tangle of family silver.
Guru to the emerging generation of Spanish chefs, Aduriz is creating a quiet revolution in a sleek, modern caserío (farmhouse) nestled within the hills outside San Sebastián, among haystacks and fat cows that graze on rich local grasses. Nature happens to be central to his vision. "My food aims to encapsulate the landscape," the shy, lanky 33-year-old explains. Mission accomplished in a dish called tears of peas: baby peas caught in the fleeting moment between being sprouts and legumes, smaller than lentils and snapping in the mouth with the freshness of spring. Coated in a film of ginger gelée and strewn with tiny wildflowers, the dish is heart-stoppingly lyrical. Part botanist, part poet, part mad scientist, Aduriz famously studied the molecular structure of liver to reinvent the texture of foie gras. Cooked in an elaborate multistep process, tonight's foie gras possesses the improbable buttery smoothness of tuna belly. And just as improbably, it's paired with delicate yuba (soy-milk skin) and an ephemeral froth tinged with yeast—an effect worlds away from the fat-oozing, trembly, sweet-sauced blobs of goose liver that we normally associate with haute cuisine. "There is an austere sensuality to our food," Aduriz says. "I might use foreign ingredients, but the sensibility is purely Basque."
The Parade of Pintxos
Basques are enamored of their dining rituals: seafood lunches at waterside villages, jaunts to country sidrerías, where fresh hard cider is dispensed from the barrel. Above all they adore the txikiteo, Basque for "tapas spree," which revolves around pintxos (small bites) and stubby glasses of Txakoli, a slightly pétillant local white poured from arm's length. A glass, a nibble, a schmooze, then on to the next bar—comparing this rockfish mousse to that bacalao-stuffed piquillo pepper on the way. Basques do this daily.
At one in the afternoon, the crowd at Bar Asador Ganbara in San Sebastián's cobblestoned Parte Vieja is shoulder to shoulder; my nose is literally pressed against vast bowls of cèpes and chanterelles on the counter. I order them mixed and sautéed, slowly inhaling the expensive bosky perfume. A group of French tourists ravage the pintxos as if they've been starving for days. "You don't eat like this in France," the owner teases. Though Basque displays of food are so lush they border on pornographic, local gourmands insist that each spot excels in only one or two things. Bar Martínez nearby is renowned for its zucchini timbales stuffed with crab mousse, and Bar Txepetxa is a shrine to the anchovy. At Bar La Cepa everyone orders petals of cured Jabugo ham. The smoky-sweet fat coats the mouth with pure pleasure, lingering in the back palate like Vega Sicilia Unico (Spain's greatest wine).
In their classic form, pintxos are simple morsels: a wedge of potato omelet, fried bacalao mounted on bread. In the eighties, bar owners began updating their canapés with boutique ingredients, decorating them like Fabergé eggs. "Modern pintxos are a true culinary treasure; they are just as inventive as my food," Arzak insists. In the bourgeois Gros district, Bar Bergara is the Tiffany of pintxo bars. So baroque are Bergara's offerings, it takes the owner several hours to assemble the counter display. Sporting frilly chive garlands, grated egg sprinkles, and Technicolor bell-pepper confetti, the pintxos preen from their Villeroy & Boch plates like lilliputian wedding cakes.
Bar food takes a further evolutionary leap at La Cuchara de San Telmo, a scrupulously inelegant joint in the Old Town. Here, two young veterans of Ferran Adrià's El Bulli dish out small plates that would dazzle even the most jaded New York and London critics. Their style has a name: alta cocina en miniatura, or miniaturized haute cuisine. I bury my spoon in a glass of luscious chilled crab soup dabbed with tomato compote, then order caramelized foie gras ravioli. La Cuchara, which advertises itself as a humble neighborhood bar and charges three bucks a plate, goes through at least 1,000 pounds of foie gras a year. Only in San Sebastián.
The Grill Grail
For all of Bilbao's industrial prowess and San Sebastián's cosmopolitan airs, Basque food remains unapologetically antiurban. And the asador—a restaurant dedicated to grilling—stands as a smoky symbol of its heartland cuisine. The thing to eat at an asador is a chuleta: a heroic T-bone from a Galician or Danish cow, thicker than War and Peace, generously marbled, profoundly crusty and charred, and served with a sprinkling of coarse sea salt. The place to eat it is Casa Julián, pretty much everyone's idea of a perfect asador, in the town of Tolosa. From one of the six tables in this fabulously funky ex-garage, you can watch the mustachioed proprietor tend to his bovine masterpieces sizzling on his special sloped grill.
Julián's steak might be the cow's proudest moment; but Etxebarri, in the idyllic pueblo of Axpe, is to a country barbecue place what Einstein was to your old physics teacher. This is Spain's premier restaurante de producto, with each bit of food brought by the grill to a state of almost surreal perfection. Owner Víctor Arguinzóniz grew up on a farm, surrounded by the aroma of woodsmoke, and as a youngster he eked out a living gathering firewood. In the quest to push barbecue to a higher plane, he makes his own charcoal—out of oak and olive branches for fish, old vines for meat—and devises new techniques and equipment, such as a movable rack that regulates the food's distance from the smoldering coals as it cooks. Each millimeter counts, each new dish brings a distinct nuance of smokiness.
Fresh anchovies are cooked close to the heat on one side for a mere minute, then sprayed with an atomizer of spicy Txakoli-infused oil. Eating them is like inhaling sea air. Salt cod receives a long and slow treatment, falling apart into moist, luxurious flakes. Even risotto laced with spider crab is done on the grill in a laser-cut mesh-bottom pan that lets in the smoke without losing the broth. As for the chuleta, aged three weeks and grilled on both sides simultaneously in another novel method, it is as much an engineering miracle as it is an awe-inspiring hunk of protein.
The Seafood Specialist
A classic Spanish seafood restaurant looks something like this: a nautically themed room swathed in gleaming wood and groups of men in striped shirts contemplating a pile of shrimp shells, a proprietor who carries himself with the gravitas of a heart surgeon. In the mood for a dozen raw Galician clams? Salt-baked sea bass, perhaps? At these places there is no room for silly side dishes or garnishes—no elaborate sauces, no frills—just a starkly elegant meal of sublime materia prima. As a people whose navigating and fishing skills took them to the Grand Banks possibly before Columbus reached America, the Basques take fish fetishism to another level. Here, markets display the day's catch—sea bream, bonito, sole, turbot—arranged on faux seashells in theatrically illuminated marine still lifes. In this region, even kindergartners know that a hake (line-caught, of course) cooked beyond a precise temperature point is ruined forever.
"The only way we ate fish was off the boat," says my friend Manu, the son of a hake fisherman. "The next day we threw it out because for us it wasn't fresh." He is telling me this story at Kaia, the venerable seafood establishment in the fishing village of Getaria with its own fish tanks and a view of the boats in the harbor below. Anchovies caught just minutes ago land on the table, gently sautéed in a puddle of delicate olive oil. Tasting a little like oysters but meatier, kokotxas, the much-vaunted hake's cheeks, are flash-fried in the lightest of batters to seal in their juices. The great French chef Michel Bras called Kaia's cigalas (langoustines) the world's best ingredient.We echo this sentiment as we pry the pearlescent meat from the shells. "This food might seem simple," Manu muses, "but it takes immense skill." Then he goes quiet, intent on picking out the tender nuggets of flesh from the head of a majestically grilled turbot.
It must be said that San Sebastián's population is evenly split between Kaia fans and the supporters of Elkano, another legendary seafood place in the same village. Though its cuisine is more refined, Elkano lacks the view. My advice? Try them both. Who knows when you'll eat seafood like this again?
Salt Cod City
While the Basques revere the fresh and the seasonal, it's the salted, dried Nordic fish that they regard as a kind of totem. Which is why I found myself hurrying down a narrow Bilbao street looking for Restaurante Alberdi, the temple to that most-worshipped local ingredient: bacalao. In the restaurant's kitchen, the chef and owner, Oscar Alberdi Sainz, stands towering over the stove. He places a fat slab of desalted cod in warm garlicky olive oil and gently shakes the cazuela (an earthenware casserole). Through some sort of strange alchemy, the gelatin in the fish's skin begins to emulsify with the oil, forming a smooth lemon-hued sauce. This is bacalao al pil-pil—a typically Basque onomatopoeic term for codfish cooking in oil—and if you haven't tried it, you haven't been to the Basquelands. Over lunch, which kicks off with house-cured foie gras, we rehearse bacalao lore. It was the Vikings who discovered how to air-dry cod. But medieval Basques perfected the approach by applying the salt-curing tactics they used for whale meat, making the cod not only last longer but also taste better. Perhaps the world's original venture capitalists, they turned the bacalao trade into a huge global business.
Once cheap, good bacalao can today cost more than fresh fish. Not unreasonable when you consider that the best salt cod has all the succulence of fresh fish plus that unmistakable background saline smack. "The bacalao I buy could be Norwegian fished by Icelanders on the Faeroe Islands," Alberdi says. "Provenance isn't important. What matters is the quality of the cod and the salt and the precision of the curing techniques, such as the right temperature and humidity."
We try the bacalao, first al pil-pil, then a la vizcaína, with a sweet-spicy sauce of dried peppers and loads of sautéed onions. The conversation later shifts to the stereotypes of the two dueling cities: San Sebastián dances to the gentle rhythms of neighboring France, while Bilbao, which has always traded with England, cultivates British airs (plaid is perpetually in fashion and the soccer club is called Athletic Club Bilbao). San Sebastián has gastronomic societies, Bilbao is known for its genteel country clubs. In its cuisine San Sebastián is flashy and innovative, eager to impress tourists, while Bilbao establishments cater to local bankers and industrialists who've been lunching on the same dish all their lives. "And Bilbao is definitely the capital of bacalao!" Alberdi proclaims in a way that leaves no doubt about which city wins. In Basque Country, it all comes down to food.
BAR ASADOR GANBARA Dinner, $100. At 21 Calle San Jerónimo, San Sebastián; 34-943/422-575.
BAR BERGARA Pintxos, $2.50 each; dinner, $80. At 8 Calle General Artetxe, San Sebastián; 34-943/275-026; www.pinchosbergara.com.
BAR MARTINEZ $ Pintxos, $2.50 each; raciones, $10. At 13 Calle 31 de Agosto, San Sebastián; 34-943/424-965.
BAR RESTAURANTE LA CEPA Pintxos, $2.50 each. At 7 Calle 31 de Agosto, San Sebastián; 34-943/426-394; www.barlacepa.com.
BAR TXEPETXA $ Pintxos, $2.50 each. At 5 Calle Pescadería, San Sebastián; 34-943/422-227.
LA CUCHARA DE SAN TELMO $ Pintxos, $2.75 each. At 28 Calle 31 de Agosto, San Sebastián; 34-943/420-840.
RESTAURANTE AKELARRE Dinner, $250. At 56 Paseo Padre Orcolaga, San Sebastián; 34-943/311-209 or 34-943/214-086; www.akelarre.net.
RESTAURANTE ARZAK Dinner, $270. At 21 Alto de Miracruz, San Sebastián; 34-943/278-465; www.arzak.es.
CASA JULIAN Dinner, $130. At 6 Calle Santa Clara, Tolosa; 34-943/671-417; www.casajuliandetolosa.com.
ELKANO Dinner, $160. At 2 Calle Herrerieta, Getaria; 34-943/140-614; www.restauranteelkano.com.
ETXEBARRI Dinner, $130. At 1 Plaza San Juan, Axpe; 34-946/583-042.
KAIA Dinner, $140. At 4 Calle General Arnao, Getaria; 34-943/ 140-500; www.kaia-kaipe.com.
MUGARITZ Dinner, $215. At Caserío Otzazulueta, 20 Aldura Aldea, Errenteria; 34-943/518-343 or 34-943/522-455; www.mugaritz.com.
RESTAURANTE ALBERDI $ Dinner, $120. At 5 Calle Euskalduna, Bilbao; 34-944/436-939.
RESTAURANTE GUGGENHEIM BILBAO Dinner, $140. At 2 Avda. Abandoibarra; 34-944/239-333; www.martinberasategui.com.
RESTAURANTE MARTIN BERASATEGUI Dinner, $315. At 4 Calle Loidi, Lasarte-Oria; 34-943/366-471; www.martinberasategui.com.
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